“You see … I’m Chinese, I was born in India, I’m Catholic and living in the United States, so it’s complicated,” Joseph Hou says with a laugh, sitting at the bar of his restaurant Szechuan 132.
One by one, customers leaving the lunch rush stop and give Hou a little pat on the back or a shake of the hand. He knows all by name and is on a first-name basis with many of the area’s elected officials.
“I love it. They call me up, hey Joseph, I have a job for you,” he says.
Once, the sheriff called Hou for help with paperwork on a Chinese-speaking inmate. Another time, Hou was asked to be the guide and translator for a visiting Chinese artist, and when Wilmington’s Sister City visitors from Dandong, China, come to town, Hou is the man.
“We depend on him in so many ways, and he does it with such passion and enthusiasm that we consider him to be one of Wilmington’s finest ambassadors,” said Marilyn Cantarella, president of the Sister Cities Association of Wilmington board.
This India-born, Chinese Catholic who has lived in Wilmington for 23 years is fluent in English and three Chinese dialects. Hou may call it complicated, but the city of Wilmington considers it a treasure and has named Hou the first recipient of the Berry A. Williams Citizen Diplomacy Award.
Williams is a former Wilmington mayor who launched the Sister City program in the city in 1986. In doing so, Wilmington became the cirst city in North Carolina to have a relationship with China.
Like Wilmington, Dandong is on the water, and its city flower is the azalea.
Dandong sends a delegation to Wilmington every few years to maintain relations.
A Dandong group will arrive in town Monday, and – as usual – Hou will handle translation, transportation and entertainment.
“He is hands-on. We were very proud to honor him with this award,” Cantarella said.